How Hulu Got the True Story of ‘Under the Banner of Heaven’ Right

Dustin Lance Black first picked up a copy of “Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith” nearly two decades ago. For someone who was raised in a conservative Mormon household and has since abandoned the faith, that seemed dangerous.

“The [Latter-day Saints] The church I grew up in encourages members not to dig into the past, to doubt their doubts, to put their questions on a shelf,” Black said. Jon Krakauer’s propulsive non-fiction bestseller uses a gruesome double murder by fundamentalist Mormon brethren in 1984 to explore the turbulent history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, its 1890 renunciation of plural marriage and the origins of radical polygamous sects in which child sexual abuse is widespread.

When “Under the Banner of Heaven” was published in 2003, the Mormon Church published a full-throated denunciation of the bookcalling it “not only a slap in the face of modern Latter-day Saints, but also a misunderstanding of religion in general”.

But for Black, it was a revelation: “I was sometimes angry that so much about my own faith had been hidden from me, but I was also comforted that I was not crazy, that my doubts were legitimate,” says the Oscar-winning ‘Milk’ screenwriter, who walked away from the church as a teenager due to her handling of her mother’s physically abusive marriage. “I didn’t understand why believing was a matter of life and death. »

Similar themes animate Black’s TV adaptation of “Under the Banner of Heaven,” now streaming on Hulu, which reimagines Krakauer’s book as a gripping detective story that asks provocative questions about the nature of faith and the dark side. religious fervor. While largely sympathetic in his portrayal of traditional Mormons, he is also unwavering in portraying the church’s bloody heritage.

Krakauer, credited as a consultant on the series, expects it to shake up an organization that has been hesitant to reckon with its controversial — and relatively recent — past.

“They think they’re right to censor their story, that the whole story should be an affirmation of faith,” Krakauer says. “They hated my book, and I think they’ll go crazy for it.”

A man with a pen in his mouth sits at a table covered with index cards

Creator and showrunner Dustin Lance Black at work on “Under the Banner of Heaven.”

(Dustin Lance Black)

The long-gestating series – produced by FX and originally planned as a feature film to be directed by Ron Howard – follows police officers Jeb Pyre (Andrew Garfield) and Bill Taba (Gil Birmingham) as they investigate the ritualistic murder of a young Mormon mother, Brenda Lafferty (Daisy Edgar-Jones) and her baby girl, Erica, in a sleepy corner of suburban Utah. Detectives initially suspect Brenda’s husband, Allen (Billy Howle), of the crime, but quickly learn that her brothers Dan and Ron (Wyatt Russell and Sam Worthington), once exemplary traditional Mormons, have fallen into belligerent fundamentalism.

As they uncover the truth behind the gruesome murder, the series looks back on violent moments in LDS history, including the murder of founder Joseph Smith in 1844, inviting viewers to make connections between timelines.

Detectives aside — fictional characters Black dreamed up to tie together the disparate strands of the book — the showrunner has made a concerted effort to stick to the facts. He spent years doing his own research: corroborating information in Krakauer’s book, reading Mormon history, and enlisting consultants to ensure the authenticity of such minute details as the correct regional pronunciation of Zion. (Rimines with “lion.”) The completed series sheds light on closely guarded aspects of the faith, including sacred temple ceremonies rarely observed by outsiders, as well as more mundane traditions, such as Family evening and CTR rings.

This search took Black to Idaho, where he met surviving members of Brenda’s family, who shared diaries and letters that shed new light on the events leading up to her death. It took him to Utah, where he interviewed one of Brenda’s unrepentant killers, Dan Lafferty, in prison and visited other members of the Lafferty family because, he said, “I wanted to understand, in great detail, what happened in this house that created these sons. And that led him to the border between Arizona and Utah, where he visited the fundamentalist community known as the name of Short Creek.

Black, who has family and friends who remain active Mormons, even met with church officials in Salt Lake City, urging them to contact them if there was anything he should know about. the topics explored in the book. (He says they didn’t accept the offer.)

Two women in Mormon temple clothing

Daisy Edgar-Jones, left, as Brenda Lafferty in ‘Under the Banner of Heaven.’

(Michelle Faye / FX)

“If the Mormon Church isn’t happy with me for doing this, they have to blame themselves,” Black says. “The Mormon Church taught me that if it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well. Put your shoulder behind the wheel. And I worked really hard to get it right.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints did not respond to requests for comment from The Times.

Krakauer, who had seen his book “Into Thin Air” turned into “a really bad TV movie,” was initially hesitant to allow anyone to choose “Under the Banner of Heaven.” But his niece, filmmaker Shannon Costello, urged him to return the numerous phone calls he had received from Imagine Entertainment.

Executive producer Brian Grazer says he was drawn to the book because it was both a “gripping thriller and a cautionary tale about the dangers of fundamentalism”. He and Howard only considered one writer for the adaptation: Black, who had worked with Grazer on the biopic “J. Edgar” and written for “Big Love,” the HBO drama about a polygamous family in Salt. Lake City. Krakauer was also seduced by Black’s vision and agreed to sell the rights to his book.

“I didn’t want to be just a true crime, a gruesome murder. The larger issues around fundamentalist faith — and the dangers that come with it — are really important to me,” Krakauer says.

But on his own, Black struggled to capture the book’s vast scope in a two-hour feature. He wrote countless drafts that swelled to hundreds of pages. The project sat dormant for a few years, then the Imagine team decided to revisit it as a limited edition—a medium that saved many tricky books from development hell.

“The long form was the right way to uncover a compelling and tragic family story,” says Howard, the series’ executive producer.

A breakthrough came when Black crafted the fictional detectives who serve as the audience’s proxies and lend the story an element of suspense. “Without the survey tool, it felt academic,” he says. “And I didn’t want it to feel academic.” (Black met real investigators on the original case who, while helpful, asked not to be portrayed on the show, which also explains why the murder takes place in the fictional East Rockwell.)

A man stands by his daughters while washing dishes in a kitchen sink in an early 1980s kitchen

Andrew Garfield as Jeb Pyre in ‘Under Heaven’s Banner’.

(Michelle Faye / FX)

Bill Taba is a member of the Paiute tribe, who lived in Utah long before the LDS pilgrims arrived in the 19th century, which makes him “a local but an outsider,” Black says. Jeb Pyre, meanwhile, is a basic Mormon and family man who finds he’s no longer able to “keep his questions on a shelf,” to use a saying repeated throughout the series, so that he tries to understand what led the Lafferty brothers to commit an act of “blood atonement”.

“By the simple fact that he has to do his job, he has to face all the deep truths of his faith, and it’s really incredibly painful,” says Garfield, who was intrigued by the specific challenges of being a detective. Mormon: “How do you question someone when you are conditioned to be patient and kind and gentle all the time? How do you interview a fellow Mormon, someone you consider part of your extended family? »

The publication of “Under the Banner of Heaven” launched a period of pop culture fascination with Mormonism and its offshoots. Yet unlike the disordered polygamists of “sister wives”, the drama-prone “Real Housewives of Salt Lake City” or the comically naive missionaries of “The Book of MormonJeb is never portrayed as ridiculous.

Garfield leaned heavily on Black to answer his spiritual questions and discovered “there was a strange kind of love for faith there,” he says.

To prep the key cast and crew, Black created a huge Dropbox folder containing photos, videos, and documents. He gave books like “No Man Knows My History,” Fawn Brodie’s influential scholarly biography of Joseph Smithe, to actors playing historical figures.

And he sent Garfield and other cast members to Utah before production began last year because, he says, “no book will replace meeting Mormons.” (As a nod to financial reality rather than geographic precision, the series was filmed in Alberta, Canada.)

Black formally employed two consultants specializing in Mormon history and tradition: Lindsay Hansen Park, a feminist writer and executive director of the Sunstone Education Foundation, a nonprofit organization supporting Mormon studies; and Troy Williams, a devout former Mormon who now leads Equality Utah, an LGBTQ rights group, and has been described as Utah’s response to Harvey Milk.

Set designer Renee Read and costume designer Joseph La Corte also spent months buried in research to visually construct the world of Mormons over two centuries. Among many other tasks, Read recreated a massive mural inside the Salt Lake Temple, while La Corte fashioned period objects. temple clothes for actors to wear under their costumes.

“I’m sure the Mormon Church will always find fault here and there. It’s their job. But I wanted to make this job very difficult for them,” says Black. “I support the show in how it portrays Mormonism — and not just Mormonism but, frankly, Christianity in America.”

And while he thinks he’s made an adequate distinction between fundamentalist Mormons and mainstream Mormons, Black adds, “I’ve also been honest about the fact that they share a lot of things in common, and a lot of things that they share are misogynistic, dangerous and potentially deadly.”

“Under the Banner of Heaven”

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Evaluation: TV-MA (may not be suitable for children under 17)

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